Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Changing Perspectives

Spring break arrived and though we had planned a long awaited camping trip with the Spicy Barracuda, a forecast of 38 degree highs and 100% chance of rain kinda killed it. So, off to my family's beach house we ventured instead. The four days were wonderful! After the first two of pouring rain and crazy wind, the skies were cloudless and in the seventies.

The Barracuda loved it, Guadalupe loved it (her first time at the beach) and it definitely showed me the extent that our family's lifestyle is a bit off from center. To open up a pantry and see stacks of cans was odd. To not have a bins of bulk food and be making meals from scratch, was odd. To be without Jules (he stayed home for most of the trip), was odd. But most odd of all was the water!

Having rain barrels of water has changed the way that both Jules and I look at the consumption of our water. The idea of rain barrels began because in the summer it is as though someone turns off the rain faucet. It completely dries up (not even a shower) for at least a good two months and more like three. The bummer with this is that it is the prime growing season and thus, if you want a garden you have to pay for the high priced irrigation from city water. City water around here increases almost 20% in the summer! With 90-100 degree days the water is a must and so we figured why not harvest the water for free during the rainy season (the other nine months of the year).

We started small with only two barrels set up and an incomplete overflow valve. Sure, it rained a lot here. Sure, everywhere on the internet cautioned people at how quickly rain barrels filled up. But, come on. We just had them hooked up to the small porch awning not the whole roof, and two barrels is 110 gallons of water. No problem, we had a couple of weeks to get it all perfected.

In one weekend rain event we had a barrel and a half full. And it was still coming! We hadn't anticipated this kind of water falling from the sky. I have lived here my whole life and never really thought much of the volume of water when it rains. It doesn't pour, it just rains...all the time. What were we doing to do with all that water?!? We didn't want the barrels to become completely full, and flood out the makeshift overflow creating a nice eroding river in our backyard.

There had to be something, so we brainstormed. We couldn't use it to cook with because the gutters are dirty. We couldn't drink it for the same reason. The crops weren't in yet so watering wasn't necessary and the rain was watering for us. Dishes and laundry were out for the same reason we couldn't cook with it. Jules came up with it at last - the toilet. It didn't matter how dirty the water was if we were just using it for flushing the toilet!

We figured we could make use of the water (and mainly keep the barrels from flooding) for the next couple of days (it rained all week) until we could acquire a third barrel and establish the overflow. Problem solved, at least temporarily.

How much water do you think it takes to flush your toilet? I had never thought about the toilet this way. Who really wants to think about their toilet? Uh, not me. But it is one of the most highly used appliances in your house and a very simple machine. Once you turn the water off at the wall you get only a single flush. You then have to take the back lid off and fill the tank up again to the water line (literally a line in the tank) to get another flush. This is normally done automatically through the wall and that is why you turn it off. I had no frame of reference as to the water capacity of our toilet. The tank didn't look that big, eh, maybe a gallon or something. NO! It takes almost four gallons of water with every single flush of our toilet!
To put that into perspective, those are two liter soda bottles and

that is only one toilet flush.

The average person flushes the toilet 8 times a day. For those of you who work outside the home and your house (and toilet) sit unused all day this might not be much, but the Barracuda and I are home almost all day, every day. That is a lot of water (and money) literally being flushed down the toilet. Jules and I could not figure out why the water bill had spiked so much since the Barracuda and I moved it. We accepted it, but were baffled. Now, we have the answer. Somewhere between $20-$30 of our water bill was just toilet flushing.

Everyone's toilet is different, and you can calculate the amount of water you toilet uses (a great bored out of your mind activity to do with the kids) by visiting this website. If you live in a large household, this probably wouldn't work for you. There are only three of us here so we are able to pull it off very, very simply. A large kitty litter container is exactly the right size to fill the tank of our toilet now that two bricks have been placed inside. You flush, you fill. The difference is actually surprisingly minimal except in your perception of personal and household consumption.

I had no idea we used the amount of water we did. With the extent of the global water crisis leaving more than a billion people without clean water to even drink, I am so taken aback by us using four gallons of fresh water just to flush our toilet. Though I do not see our small simplification of using rainwater to flush the toilet as a way to save the impoverished of the world, the perspective it has given me on just how much I take for granted will stick with me for a long time to come.

3 thoughts:

Anonymous said...

A really cool project would be somehow hooking up the bathroom sink to the toilet tank. That way you can use the grey water to fill the tank and flush the toilet. If you want to go even further, you can have a tank that hold a reservoir of grey water that can be used to fill the tank.

Anonymous said...

To clarify...you're using collected rainwater to fill the toilet tank after each flush? Do you find it a nuisance to remove the tank lid constantly?

I just installed our first rain barrel and I'm hoping to use it for flushing as well.


@ densitywave - I think it is definitely something where you need to consider the number of people in your family and how many hours you all are home. There are only three of us in our family, and Jules was gone all day long. Between just my son and myself, we didn't use the bathroom constantly so it wasn't all that annoying. After a bit of trial and error, we figured out that one large kitty litter container (thoroughly rinsed out multiple times) basically filled the tank. We had five of them stationed in the bathroom and thus only had to really fill up the water once in the morning. Removing the tank was only frustrating when our son wouldn't remind us to refill it after he had used the bathroom. Since we didn't allow him to refill himself (he just wasn't strong enough), there would not be any water to flush it when we needed to use it next. Fair warning, we began with two rain barrels and quickly added on. You might find yourself going through 55 gallons much faster than you realize! Good Luck.

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